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The land occupied by the modern state of Iraq is among the most historic on Earth. It has been the backdrop to thousands of years of momentous human events.
The Republic of Iraq covers 3522 sq km, and is bordered by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Kuwait. The main cities are the capital Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. Iraq is an almost landlocked country, having only access to a short stretch of the sea coast on the Persian Gulf.
It is composed of a mountainous region in the northeast and the vast Syrian desert, inhabited by a few nomadic shepherds In the southwest is the heart of the country, a fertile lowland region watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Iraq is potentially one of the richest countries in the world. It contains enormous deposits of petroleum and natural gas. It is endowed with large quantities of water, supplied by its two main rivers and their tributaries. Iraq's location between those two great rivers gave rise to its ancient Greek name, Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers).
About one third of the labor force is engaged in agriculture, oil production,
notably in the great fields of Mosul and Kirkuk. Iraq is among the largest oil
producers of the Middle East. Its petroleum resources were nationalized in 1972,
and oil revenues were used to promote industrialization and to transform Iraq
into a military power. The UN sponsored economic embargo imposed after the invasion
of Kuwait has severely reduced Iraq's oil exports and devastated the economy.
Most of the population are Muslim Arabs, divided religiously into the Sunni Muslim (45%) of central Iraq and Shiites Muslim (50%) of the south. The Kurds, who inhabit the north, are the principal minority. About 80% are Arab and 15% Kurd. Minority ethnic groups include Jazirah Bedouins in the northern areas, Turkomans, Sabaeans, Jews, Yazidis, mostly in rural areas. Also, around 2.5 million Christians live in Iraq, mostly Chaldians and Assyrian Roman Catholics, speaking the old Aramaic (Assyrian-Chaldian) language. Otherwise Arabic is the official language in most of the country, Kurdish is official in northern sections.
Set up as a monarchy, Iraq became a republic in 1958. It has been a dictatorship dominated by a single party since 1968. That dictatorship has been under the control of Saddam Hussein as president since 1979. Under his leadership, Iraq's regional and foreign policies have been ambitious, often involving great risk. In the late 20th century Iraq attained a high international profile, unprecedented in the modern history of the Middle East, but at an exorbitant political price. The dictatorship failed in various attempts to topple Arab regimes and to achieve leadership status in the Arab world or even in the Persian Gulf region. It failed in eight years of war in the 1980s to bring down the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It conquered Kuwait in 1990 but was forced to relinquish it by a coalition of Western and Arab countries in the Persian Gulf War. Afterward, it found itself shackled by an UN oil embargo and other limitations on its sovereignty.
History of Iraq